A woman who stays on top of work+life issues tagged me in Sarah Cottrell’s LinkedIn post announcing that she was leaving the workforce to be at home with her young son. You’ll see that this post is basically going viral. As of this writing nearly 13,000 women (and a few men) have “liked” Sarah’s post—and in more than 500(!) comments there is overwhelming support for her decision to change her title from U.S. Public Affairs Supervisor at McDonald’s to Family CEO.
I’m the first to say that work and motherhood can be a very difficult mix. When both my daughters were young, I continually fought off feelings of guilt when I would set off on the train to New York City, leaving my babies in the care of nannies. When I would share these feelings with my husband (including the occasional fear that my daughters would love the nannies more than me), he would remind me that most women must work and their children not only love them, but turn out just fine. Now my daughters are 19 and 27—they’re successful, independent young women who have loved me through three entrepreneurial ventures, work at home and at employer offices, and periods when I had ten freelance projects at a time.
Despite the fact that I have worked steadily since age 16, I’ve always pursued flexible work that allowed me to be very present in my daughters’ lives. While working for leading companies and turning out high-profile projects, I also was a room mother, field trip driver, Pumpkin Festival PR Mom, lunchroom monitor, Thanksgiving paper turkey cutter, carpool driver, homework overseer, field hockey snack mother, Mommy and Me dance partner, Halloween costume maker, elaborate birthday party creator and so much more.
That’s why I worry that everyone who “liked” or commented on Sarah’s post may not know that today it is much more possible to work in a flexible way than when my daughters were young. A full exit comes at a big cost: every year out of the workforce a woman forfeits up to four times her salary. I’ve been coaching returning professional women since 2002 and I’ve seen that women stay out of the workforce for an average of 12 years. That’s 144 paychecks that are not earned, saved and invested. It’s great if your intention is to return to work, but few return in “a couple of years”, and it’s very hard to recoup the cost of the typical gap.
Women will say that any amount of money lost pales in comparison to the the loss of time with your child. But I have been on the other side of the off-ramping decision—too often helping women desperate to return after a once solid-earning husband loses a job, gets sick or flies the coop. I’ve had a steady stream of women who suddenly wake up to the fact that multiple college tuitions have price tags that eclipse one household income, realize in the 11th hour that their retirement savings are woefully short or are startled by the fact that once affluent parents now need around-the-clock care that strains their depleted nest eggs. Every day it’s a different story of a woman who felt justified leaving the workforce, and paid the price of focusing on whatever financial comfort they felt that day. We all need to fund a long retirement that could last 30 years or more and so many life you never knows. Life is long—and expensive.
Here’s the reality: if you feel you must focus on your children 24/7, they are the very same children you could burden if you run out of money down the road.
Though it is certainly controversial, I put my stake firmly in the ground: it’s wise for women to always work. I’m not talking about the kind of work that requires 60-hour workweeks, long commutes, overnight travel and basically being on-call to employers 24/7. I’m not talking about the traditional tied-to-your desk corporate job and the quest for the most power at the top. I’m not even talking about the new holy grail for driven women—entrepreneurial ventures that can be exponentially scaled and sold. I’m encouraging you to develop your own brand of ambition and success—and pursue some kind of reasonable, sustainable, flexible work that fits your life throughout two big caregiving roles (children and aging parents). Some work that keeps you earning, saving and investing toward long-term financial security.
Today women can have flexible full-time jobs with reasonable hours and work at home all or part of the time. There are professional part-time jobs that fit neatly into school hours and even include health benefits if you work 30 hours for a company that has 50+ employees. Job shares that keep your career moving with a 50% time commitment. Freelance projects or a consulting practice that allow you to decide how much you want to work and give you the freedom of time off during the summer or school vacations. And entrepreneurial ventures that never have to be the topic of headline news.
The bottom line is that today women have so many options to nurture both family and financial security. Always working is a form of caregiving for yourself and your family, too.
More reasons why it’s wise for women to always work and how to find the flexible work that’s right for you can be found in my book, Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead. This post was originally published on LinkedIn where there is a lively discussion for and against my views. Join in the productive conversation!